Symptoms of leprosy (also called Hansen’s disease) do not appear immediately infection with leprosy bacteria occurs.
After infection with the bacteria that causes leprosy (Mycobacterium leprae), it takes about 2 to 10 years before symptoms of Hansen’s disease begin to appear. For some people, it can even take up to 20 years after contact with Mycobacterium leprae before symptoms of the disease appear. This period of time between contact with the leprosy bacteria and appearance of symptoms is called the incubation period.
Hansen’s disease or leprosy mainly affects the peripheral nerves (that is, nerves outside the brain and spinal cord) and the skin. It also affects the lining on the inside of the nose, as well as the eyes.
Skin sores, bumps and/or lumps that make the person suffering from the disease to be disfigured is one of the main symptoms of leprosy. The skin sores, bumps and/or lumps usually persist for many weeks and may even last for months. The areas of skin where there are skin sores are usually lighter in colour than surrounding skin.
The early symptoms of this disease are very subtle and occur very slowly, so they may not be noticed early. Also, some of these symptoms are similar to symptoms of diseases like tetanus, leptospirosis and syphilis.
Some of the early symptoms of leprosy are:
- Pins and needles sensations/tingling.
- Loss of touch sensation – inability to feel when someone or something is touching you.
- Loss of temperature sensation – inability to feel whether something is hot or cold.
These symptoms occur as a result of damage to the peripheral nerves.
Due to the loss of sensation that occurs as the disease progresses, the infected individual won’t notice when he/she is injured in any way (cuts, burns, etc).
Symptoms that are seen later in the course of the disease include:
- Loss of the fingers and toes.
- Disfigurement of the face – including loss of the nose.
- Skin thickening.
- Thickening of the peripheral nerves.
- Affectation of the eyes leading to reduced blinking, redness of the eyes, corneal ulcers, pain in the eyes, dryness of the eyes, inability to close the eyes, and blindness.
Other symptoms of leprosy include:
- Weight loss.
- Pain in the joints.
- Rashes and/or blisters.
- Hair loss (especially, the eyebrows and eyelashes).
- Injury to nerves.
- Ulcers that are relatively painless.
- Loss of deep pressure sensation – inability to feel when deep pressure is applied to parts of the person’s body.
- Weakness of the muscles.
- Flat areas of skin that are paler than surrounding skin – called hypopigmented macules.
- One or more skin lesions found mostly on cooler parts of the body such as the face, arms, legs, and buttocks.